By: Maggie Williams
On March 5, 2016 I flew to Guatemala City with several other members of my Alternative Break Program. The flight took about eight hours total overnight Saturday night into early Sunday morning, after having several connection flights from Dulles International to Mexico City, then landing Guatemala City. When we first took off, after having not traveled internationally annually since high school, I was freaking out on the plane, constantly asking”, what in the world did I get myself into.”
Everything became a blur after that because my plane ride to Guatemala City was so much better. We were able to walk on the plane from outside, so for a very brief moment, I got to luxury of walking in the beautiful country of Mexico. But, while I stressed out there was a relief that hit me the morning we landed in the Guatemala City Airport.
Seeing Guatemala for the first time was a culture shock from the United States. The pace was so much slower and I felt at peace. After landing (on Sunday morning), we sat down for a short coffee break and then headed out for Antigua, Guatemala! The traffic-eh, it was not any better than in Northern Virginia. But, the view, it was nothing compared to anywhere in the Estados Unidos.
We unpacked our bags in the hostels and headed out for a hiking tour on a mountain. I had no idea that we were going on the mountain, but I love nature so that was definitely fun to experience! I got to know my group a little better as we hiked, and realized how supportive everyone was, so it turned out to be a blast! We hiked at nightfall, which was scary, especially as we lost someone hiking back up, but it was also something that pushed me out of my comfort zone, so it was rewarding. Nevertheless, the highlight of this day was having dinner on the mountain cliff at a restaurant, playing soccer with the impeccable view, and lying down in some comfortable hammocks, and let me tell you getting up from those hammocks was not easy.
Monday, we were able to visit the beautiful site of Cerro de la Cruz, it was so beautiful being able to see all of Antigua from this one spot. After taking pictures and buying souvenirs, we traveled to Xela, Guatemala, about three hours away. We didn’t see it coming but after sitting in traffic, we ran into a politico manifesto! We were walked around to see what was going on by walking with Tomas our friend, who is a Guatemalan natives. It was amazing to see the difference in how people were protesting; after all they stopped all on going traffic to get the attention on what they wanted to change. But, to see that other people in world are also protesting their government was eye opening because we often never hear about the citizen side of protests in the news in other countries. We also hear from their government so this was a once in a lifetime opportunity!
After running back into our van— literally, we made our way to Xela, I noticed that the architecture of the buildings were different. In Antigua, the houses were different colors; it had a very baroque structure, so that was captivating. However, in Xela, the houses and buildings were often multistory concrete houses. Once, we arrived to our homestays, we went to our Kalmalbe school in Xela, which was only about a five minute away walk and was able to talk about our plan for the rest of the week; but also made our lesson plans for when we went into the schools. It turned out to be a very unexpected day as our ride took longer than expected. But, after walking around during the protest, I had a stronger understanding of the culture of Guatemala—but also the privilege of us in America, where we don’t have as strong of a problem with corrupt politicians, we can have a say with who we want. But, in Guatemala, that is not the case.
Tuesday, I was nervous but so excited to see the little ones at El Tigre—the community elementary school. When we opened the doors, all the kids were so excited, so I was pumped to teach them about everything we knew about nutricion and hygiene. We taught first grade and then moved into third grade. Since I was learning Spanish, I assisted the head teachers in our group who were fluent, by walking around and asking children what they drew. Their pictures, imagination and passion inspired me that day., as they all had so much energy. I loved seeing how happy and energetic the students were despite the fact that were coming from backgrounds where they had to walk a long way to get to school, had to work and help their families. It was there and then when I became thankful for all that I had growing up, where school was never inaccessible. For me, it was right down the street, so just seeing my privilege challenged me to think about who I was and who I want to be as a prospective educator. \
Wednesday, I went to the El Oratorio School to assist with creating the lesson plan, which was only about five minutes away from El Tigre. We broke our lesson plan into three groups: What is healthy, what are healthy foods, and how to take care of yourself. Despite the fact that we were breaking a sweat the whole morning, the children had such a blast, so I am glad that we were there. After dinner, we went to a jazz festival, which was interesting as the solo violinist was from Europe! I was able to relax with the music after a long day at the schools! Even better, we stopped to get pizza on our way back to the homestays and proceeded to go home and come back out to a nearby restaurant for group reflection. Oh the disaster—we walked around Xela for an hour, officially lost, and I ended up keeping water bottle out for defense just in case. Once we got to the restaurant group reflection I had brownie on the side and suddenly the fact that we got lost slipped my mind.
Thursday, I went to El Oratorio in the morning to help with the lessons, this time we were in fourth and fifth grade instead of first and second grade, which was exciting! But we had to leave a little early, as we were on our way to get frutas y venduras in a local mercado. It was amazing to see all of the different products venders had to offer! I had yogurt and it hit the spot! It was even better to be able to spend some time with my trip leaders along the way. After lunch, we made our way back to Xela and walked around a factory to how they made scarves and even saw the Iglesia de San Jacinto, the first Catholic Church in Latin America.
It was interesting to hear how effective assimilation affects a culture. It made me wonder how colonialization affected my own family ancestors in Trinidad and Venezuela. While I may think that what religion I believe in is normal, I now question, what is my religion, what was it before colonial settlers enforced cultural assimilation? Maybe I the world isn’t as clear as I think.
Friday was the saddest day of the week, as our journey across the beautiful country of Guatemala was coming to an end. I went to El Tigre in the morning to get a head start on the mural, but I couldn’t resist the enthusiasm of the munchkins who wanted to play tag, dance and do tricks on the monkey bars.
As we approached midafternoon we started to teach the kids how the fruit is good for their heart, head, and overall health.
Fun fact of the day—after I gave out all of the fruit, I realized the 100+ papers with the information about nutrition something went missing! I scurried back into the classrooms to ask the kids where they went and turned out the class played a mini prank on me by hiding them in their backpacks. It turned out to the most stressful, epic, but absolutely hilarious moment of the week, even better than when I knocked down the paint can on Thursday in the middle of our painting session. But we don’t have to remember that—whoops! When we were finishing up our murals on schools, I ran into two kids, Ezmeralda and her hermano, Pedro.
I ended up teaching them English and they taught me Spanish. The enthusiasm they had for learning English changed me forever as an educator, because I just realized how privileged America was to be able to have different languages available in schools. We were behind schedule a little that day, and didn’t make it to hot springs, but I didn’t care after meeting Ezmeralda and Pedro. After leaving, I was heartbroken from leaving the them behind, but confident knowing that the information we left them behind with is going to impact them more than we know it, even if we weren’t going to be there to see it.
Friday night, I had the experience of going to a Guatemala club—hey, no judging, the salsa club was closed! Likewise, we danced with the locals and listened to some of the music as there was a LIVE band playing in the middle of the club. It was a great way to end the trip. Saturday morning, we concluded the trip and made our way to different paths.
After my experience in Guatemala, I couldn’t be more thankful for being able to go and meet so many different people, try different foods, dance with los ninos, and speak Espanol. There’s no doubt that this trip changed me, especially as an educator. I know now the barriers students face when performing in the classroom internationally as I saw them on a first hand experience (long walking distance, limited school supplies, etc.), so I hope to make sure that none of my future students are left out of the classroom, because I like to think that every child should have access to education regardless of where they come from. I learned so much about social justice from my trip family, hearing what they had to say challenged me to have an open mind when walking into new situations and letting myself be vulnerable. As a future educator, I hope to change the world one student at a time by helping dismantle those barriers students have wherever I decide to teach. I know that it won’t be easy but it will be worth it in the long run for the students that I empower, as I hope to inspire and guide the next generation!
While the trip may be over, the memories I made with the locals, and my beloved trip members will always stay in my heart! I hope to be able to come back next year!